What is British about British Landscapes?
By Thomas Busciglio-Ritter, Art History PhD Candidate
The landscape surrounding William Beckford’s Lansdown Tower, perched on a hill overlooking the city of Bath, seems almost impossibly English. Beyond a cemetery strewn with tombs overgrown by vegetation, a vast expense of green pastures stretches down to the valley where the town appears. When Beckford conceived this isolated retreat, as much an architectural folly as a workspace, he engaged in a dialogue with the landscape. In his view, nature was one with the structure, in an uninterrupted way. Completed in 1827, the tower also reflected the tenets of the popular picturesque aesthetic, dear to the hearts of British artists like John Constable, through which nature, reorganized to please the human gaze, acted as a canvas on which to paint emotions.
The picturesque, however, had never been specifically British. As early as the 1790s, artists of the newly-independent United States had set out to capture American vistas by reproducing the manner of English painters. Thomas Doughty’s Landscape with Curving River (ca. 1823), for instance, could well be set in the English countryside, showing how the aesthetics of British landscapes travelled seamlessly throughout the Atlantic World. Over the course of two weeks spent in England and Wales, the notion of what constitutes a genuinely national landscape continually challenged my eyes and my mind. Although some historians like John Crowley view the global circulation of British landscape aesthetics at the turn of the 19th century as a mere extension of Britain’s imperialist strategies, I prefer to concentrate on the sheer diversity of processes of exchange around the subject of landscape in Georgian Britain. Material culture traces indeed show how productions from this era, whether in architecture, design, or the visual arts, accomplished a progressive dissolution of the Britishness of British landscapes.
Josiah Wedgwood’s “Frog Service”, for instance, consists of a series of 1,222 views of English monuments, gardens and natural sites produced in 1774 for Catherine II of Russia. Even “everyday” objects such as the plates can be seen as a form of diplomatic and proto-touristic promotion on the part of Britain: in this case, each of them was labelled with the name and location of the site depicted. It is hard to assess the extent to which the circulation of such images, hand-painted in a picturesque English manner, influenced the way aristocratic Russians perceived their own landscape, and resulting representations in material form. But by displaying them vertically in cases, museums like the Ashmolean in Oxford or the Potteries Museum of Stoke-on-Trent—have now clearly reemphasized the visual potential of the plates, drawing attention to the views more than to the actual technique and function of the service.
Attempting to reconcile these aspects, the temporary exhibition The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter, held at London’s Science Museum from September 25, 2019 to January 26, 2020, highlighted one further dimension at play in the global circulation of landscapes to and from Britain: the importance of scientific research in the creation of landscape views. Meteorologist Luke Howard, the mind behind a coherent naming system for clouds, was also a skilled watercolorist, sketching cloud formations in their ephemerality. It is undoubtable that, beyond their taxonomic pretense, such “sky-scapes” appealed to a wide audience in the Atlantic World, especially in North America, where young artists of the Hudson River School, like Frederic Edwin Church, filled their canvases with details resulting from an interest in natural sciences. Howard’s enterprise allowed for a greater universalization of nature and weather, though the source of production of his knowledge was still tied to England’s domestic climate.
If this trip has taught me anything, it is that landscapes are highly versatile, transportable, and transposable. When considering their influence on artistic and material productions, in Britain or elsewhere, scholars should pay attention not to essentialize them. Then perhaps, we may witness the rise of more global narratives about the theorization of natural scenery.